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That LCSH is a system which is in need of a lot of development work is a well-attested fact. In thinking about a British Library perspective on the development issues I find that it is to a large extent economics which sets the agenda. As a cataloguing manager I am permanently faced with two questions. What are the costs of using LCSH for us? What are the benefits for our users? It is by answering these questions that we define the critical development issues for LCSH and help to inform the contributions that we all can make to that development. In this paper I want to review some of the familiar issues for LCSH development from this British Library perspective. I will also describe briefly some subject indexing development work in which the BL has been engaged: the indexing of fiction.
So what have we made of our experiences with LCSH? Three issues come out uppermost as impinging on how we best achieve good subject access to our collections: vocabulary control, policies for the application of LCSH and the shared cataloguing environment itself.
Good subject access might well be defined as the provision of access in the language and terminology that the end user is likely to search on. Foskett focuses on a central problem in achieving this with LCSH :
"Librarians and other intermediaries realize that LCSH is an artificial indexing language, and use it as such, but users probably do not, thus placing yet another barrier between them and the information they are seeking." (3)
The real issue here is that users should not have to realize that LCSH is a controlled vocabulary in order to conduct successful searches. Access by LCSH in most catalogues is access by the preferred terms established on the authority file, but without the benefit of the entry vocabulary of cross-references behind these headings. Although a lot has been written about the limitations and inadequacies of the thesaural relations on the LCSH file the fact remains that there are reference structures which offer the potential to greatly enrich access for the end user. Making decisions to change headings or references must be linked to the development of systems which will properly exploit these thesaural structures. This line of thinking has been well-developed in the work of Karen Drabenstott and others. (4) I mention it in order to emphasise that we take such systems developments as an underlying assumption in our thinking about the inadequacies or otherwise of headings and thesaural links in the LCSH file.
Inevitably we had an initial concern about Americanisms. The idea of an American subject indexing language forming the basis for access to the collections of the British national library certainly seems to be a triumph for American cultural imperialism. And perhaps it is. But in terms of giving us problems with access I think it is a relatively trivial issue, and certainly one which can largely be overcome through developing thesaural control on the authority file. Many cross-references from Americanisms already exist to provide access in language more natural to a British user, although sometimes with slightly less natural qualifiers in order to avoid conflicts on the file, e.g.
Some references would be more natural than the main heading to an American user too, e.g.
More serious concerns for us are common to any user of LCSH and are certainly not unique to the non-American context. For instance the need to modernize awkward, archaic or unsatisfactory subject headings. It is not especially a British cultural perspective which finds fault with expressing the history of England as the history of Great Britain, e.g.
Great Britain--History--Edward 1, 1272-1307,
it is simply a failure in specificity which we would all like to change. Changes on this kind of scale carry with them major implications for authority control of the headings assigned in bibliographic files and this has been a major in-house stumbling block for LC. Lois Chan identifies the tension between the stability of the system and its responsiveness to change as a key issue for LCSH (5): the benefits of change must be weighed against the cost of making those changes. The fact that it is a stable system is of great value in terms of the past investment of indexing in many catalogues across the world, but clearly there are some headings or constructions that fail to express the concepts accurately or in a way that an end user is likely to search for. The trick is to bring in the changes without compromising the coherence of the catalogues where LCSH is deeply rooted over time: a problem for authority control which I will come back to later.
However good an indexing language LCSH might be or become it will only provide good access to a catalogue if it has been assigned consistently according to clear principles for subject analysis. After a gap of seven years the re-introduction of LCSH at the British Library has effectively involved starting from scratch in learning how to apply the headings. Because we have pursued a goal of integrating subject work with descriptive cataloguing in the design of the standard cataloguer job this has meant investing a large amount of time and effort on training cataloguers in the application of LCSH. This experience has served to concentrate our minds on the complexity and difficulty of getting to grips with LCSH as a systematic standard. The system of free-floating subdivisions which contribute so much to the flexibility of the indexing language also bring with them different patterns of indexing in different subject areas and for different kinds of material. The size of LC's Subject Cataloging Manual: Subject Headings (SCM), at four volumes, is itself an indication of the learning curve which cataloguers have to traverse.
Adherence to the principles and policies outlined in the Subject Cataloging Manual is at the heart of the cost-benefit equation that we have to balance in using LCSH. We place prime importance on adherence to the manual in order to achieve consistency in our own indexing and consistency with the indexing practice of the Library of Congress and our cooperative partners in the UK. Following the SCM makes indexing more time consuming and therefore costly, but the quality of our own indexing is improved and we can derive copy from other libraries without losing the benefit of a consistently applied indexing system. Well, that is the theoretical ideal. In reality the complexity of the system means that consistent practice is not always achieved. The SCM is a difficult tool to use and there are certainly arguments for changing, developing or clarifying some of the policies for application. The cooperative context means that achieving indexing consistency has two dimensions: internal, oriented towards training, and external, oriented towards policy development.
Internally our primary concern is to ensure that we are able to maintain and develop our expertise in LCSH. One of the difficulties with our multi-skilled cataloguer job design is that the task of subject indexing comprises only a part of a wide range of specialist cataloguing skills, which include descriptive cataloguing, application of Dewey classification and authority controlling name access points. Consequently gaining basic proficiency in the complexities of LCSH takes a long time and developing deeper expertise has to be balanced with the other demands on a cataloguer's skills. The particular difficulties experienced in applying LCSH are leading us to re-examine the way in which we design cataloguing jobs and the cataloguing process in order to maintain and improve both quality and efficiency. In the past we have maintained a tradition of generalist cataloguing, and this may continue, but we are now considering whether it would improve both job design and the effectiveness of our cataloguing to develop cataloguer expertise by allowing them to concentrate on material in particular subject areas. Something which would allow cataloguers to focus development of their LCSH and Dewey expertise, and which will in turn better inform our contribution of new headings through SACO and our input on policy development issues for the SCM.
Externally our chief concern is to ensure that what we are doing in our indexing is consistent with the application of LCSH on records which we derive from others. We have to face differences in application based on differing interpretations of the SCM and deliberate local deviations based on the different needs or perceived needs of different libraries. Perhaps one of the most difficult principles on which to achieve consistency in LCSH application is that of specificity. Chan identifies a whole raft of problems associated with this central concept: Is specificity defined by the place of a particular heading in the hierarchical structure? Or is specificity purely a matter of co-extensivity with the item catalogued? If so to what depth should an item be indexed to assign specific access points which represent significant parts of the work? Are terms too specific if they are never likely to be searched for by an end user? Is specificity best-achieved by assigning pre-coordinated, highly specific headings, or by assigning several broader headings which post-coordinately cover the specific content of the work? - LCSH allows for both approaches. I do not intend to provide answers to these questions here, but I do want to draw attention to them as an ever-present factor affecting consistency in indexing. Perhaps the most common type of variance is in the use of generic postings: i.e. the practice of indexing a book on Cataloguing with both the heading Cataloging and the heading Library science. The strict SCM policy is to assign only the former, but many consider the policy limits access on their catalogues in some circumstances, e.g. a book about the philosophy of Wittgenstein would only merit the specific access point:-
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 18...
but a cataloguer may feel that the generic posting Philosophy is also merited in order to provide complete, post-coordinate subject access. The lack of a resolution to such variations in policy between libraries is a real problem for the cost-effectiveness of copy cataloguing. If half of the records in our catalogue have been indexed with generic postings and half without then the coherence of the catalogue as a whole is compromised, carrying with it implications for how we design search systems to best exploit the indexing language. I do not mean to suggest that variations in policy between libraries are either unacceptable or unjustifiable in terms of cost. But I do suggest that variations should be understood, known, justified and dealt with according to the needs of each individual library's catalogue.
This leads us back to my starting point which was the contention that adopting LCSH in preference to our own system merely changes the context in which we have to be involved in the development of subject indexing. Drabenstott argues that since LCSH has by default become the subject indexing standard for many libraries the whole of the cooperative cataloguing community has a responsibility to make the best of it. That is: a responsibility to make it into something better. There is a great deal to gain from sharing a standard system for subject access, both in cost-efficiency and in the benefits to end users of our catalogues, but it is unreasonable to expect that LC can or will carry all the development costs alone. During the past year we have had the opportunity to gain some first hand experience of how development and cooperation can work together.
The GSAFD provides for 4 kinds of subject access: access by specific form, by setting, by character and by subject. Access by form is provided by a range of GSAFD headings, listed in the standard, most of which conform to equivalent headings on the LCSH file, but which are assigned in the 655 MARC field, rather than the 650, e.g. 655 Science fiction. The other 3 kinds of access are all supported by standard LCSH headings and constructions. It is the headings assigned in the 655 field which open up a range of issues for the future development of LCSH.
The Library of Congress has already announced its long term intention to develop the structured voacbulary of the LCSH file by establishing a separate file of form headings which can be assigned in the 655 field rather than the 650 field. The intention is to distinguish access to works that belong to a form or genre, from works which are about that form or genre:
650 Detective and mystery stories
655 Detective and mystery stories
will retrieve separate search sets. The Library of Congress plans do not impinge on the level of access that they will continue to assign to individual works of fiction in house. Access by LCSH 655 will sit side by side with access by GSAFD 655 on both the LC and the BL catalogues. This opens up questions concerning consistency and collocation on the catalogues where there are variations in the form of headings assigned.
In order to get to grips with the implications of the LCSH 655 for our own fiction indexing the British Library set up a working group to explore the issues surrounding access by form and genre for all works of fiction, both individual and collected works, widening the issues to include consideration of the use of the proposed form subdivision, $v. Contacts with LC and with relevant ALA subcommittees ensured that we grounded our work in debates that were already advanced in the wider cooperative community. The result of our work was the submission of a discussion paper to LC, to the ALA SAC Subcommittee on Form Headings/Subdivisions implementation, and to the SAC Subcommittee to Revise the Guidelines on Subject Access to Fiction. (7)
I will not attempt to rehearse the arguments of our paper in detail. The purpose of the paper was to present a coherent, and complete set of recommendations for standardising the application of form data to works of fiction, in order to provide a focus for discussion and debate which had hitherto been piecemeal. We have taken it as an underlying asumption that the future development of LCSH provides an opportunity to subsume the GSAFD headings wholly into the larger file in order to maximise the benefits of thesaurally controlled access to individual and collected works of fiction. Arguing the case in detail led us into addressing a variety of issues: What does the principle of specificity mean in the context of form data, as opposed to topical data? Does disentangling form data from topical data by means of the new MARC tags present an opportunity for re-visiting certain standard practices for using pre-coordinate strings or post-coordinate headings? How are genre headings defined?
How our contribution of some answers to these questions will serve in the eventual development of LCSH in this area remains to be seen. Working in the cooperative environment means that progress is made through dialogue and it is encouraging to find that both the Library of Congress and the wider community of LCSH users interested in this area have responded extremely positively to the paper. A dialogue has been opened.
The reference structures already present on the LCSH file provide a significant starting point for the development of software to enhance subject searching on catalogues. As an example, I was recently treated to a demonstration by Steve Pollitt of his view-based searching system which he has developed with the EMBASE thesaurus, and is now developing for use with Dewey. (8) Potential future developments can be envisaged which would exploit links between Dewey and LCSH.and the reference structures on the LCSH file. The system might also exploit the post-coordinate associations of headings on bibliographic records. Other research, such as Karen Drabenstott's proposal for system generated search trees, offer alternative strategies for developing the user friendliness of subject access through LCSH. By designing OPACs to exploit the structures which are there in LCSH a benefit would immediately be provided for end users. Further development work on reference structures would also become better informed by the demonstration of how LCSH performs in this enhanced environment.
Major improvements in the authority control of LCSH are already planned and scheduled by the Library of Congress. A full authority file of free-floating subdivisions will finally base the application of LCSH entirely in the online environment. This will provide a platform for resolving the problem I touched on earlier: how to bring in changes without compromising the coherence of the catalogue. Systems with linked authority files have the potential to allow for the retrospective upgrade of the LCSH assigned on catalogues. Savings will be made where it is no longer necessary to maintain consistency by amending headings record by record. Benefits to the vocabulary will also accrue where there is no longer an obstacle to change in the scale of the manual amendment of backfiles.